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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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« September 9, 2007 - September 15, 2007 | Main | September 23, 2007 - September 29, 2007 »

September 21, 2007

Appeals judge will hear nursing med student's plea for more break time

By Felicia Mello, Globe Correspondent

A nursing mother will take her request for extra break time on a medical licensing exam to a state appeals court judge Tuesday, after a lower court denied her claim.

Sophie Currier, 33, says she needs more than the standard 45 minutes of rest periods in order to pump breast milk for her four-month-old daughter.

Currier has finished an MD-PhD program at Harvard but must pass the test in order to graduate and begin her residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Last week, Norfolk Superior Court Judge Patrick Brady dismissed Currier’s lawsuit against the National Board of Medical Examiners, saying the board’s offer to let Currier express milk while taking the test and in a separate room during scheduled breaks was sufficient.

The appeal will be heard at 9 a.m. in Boston’s John Adams Courthouse.

September 21, 2007

Today's Globe: no Caritas sale, drugs costs, biotech drug debate, 9/11 clinics

The Archdiocese of Boston was unable for a second time to sell its troubled Caritas Christi Health Care, according to industry officials, jeopardizing the ability of New England's second largest hospital chain to offer top-flight medical care.

As overall healthcare costs continue to rise sharply, prescription drugs have emerged as a surprising exception.

The bill Congress is soon expected to pass giving regulators more authority over pharmaceutical companies is most significant to biotech drug makers and their would-be generic rivals because of what was left out. Generic drug makers such as Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and Barr Pharmaceuticals failed to persuade lawmakers to attach legislation that would allow them to market generic versions of biotech drugs produced by the likes of Amgen Inc. and Genentech Inc.

Two free New York City health clinics devoted to the treatment of thousands of individuals made ill by toxic materials dispersed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center opened yesterday.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:54 AM
September 20, 2007

Insuring the uninsured

By Alice Dembner, Globe Staff

Enrolling virtually every eligible uninsured person in the state’s subsidized insurance program is one of the goals the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector today set for itself in the coming year.

As of Sept. 1, the total enrolled was just over 115,000.

The difficulty in meeting the new goal is that no one really knows how many state residents meet the income and other requirements for the Commonwealth Care program.
Last year’s estimates were between 140,000 and 210,000.

Another goal is signing up 35,000 people for the Commonwealth Choice program, which offers unsubsidized insurance including some stripped down plans, through the Connector.

This program is aimed at people with mid-level incomes or higher – and estimates suggested there were between 160,000 and 230,000 people without insurance last year in this income group.

The Connector is figuring that most of those people are going to get insurance through their jobs or directly from insurance brokers or companies.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 03:13 PM
September 20, 2007

Humorous hand-off

By Alice Dembner, Globe Staff

Insurance expert Nancy Turnbull joined the board of the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector today for the first time, bringing along her trademark sense of humor.

Before getting down to business, Turnbull had a gift for the man she was replacing, Charles Joffe-Halpern, president of the board of the advocacy group Health Care for All, who is quick with a quip himself. The gift: a t-shirt proclaiming the wearer a Health Reform Rock Star, complete with Joffe-Halpern’s face attached to Bruce Springsteen’s body.

The funniest thing was, given the small size of the image, Joffe-Halpern didn’t recognize either Springsteen’s body or his own visage until it was pointed out to him. Even funnier, he later said, he plans to attend his first rock concert in years in a few weeks – seeing no other than the New Jersey rocker himself.

Joffe-Halpern, a long-time social worker who is executive director of Edu-Health Care, a Berkshire County health outreach group, typically sports a bowtie when he’s out and about on business. He presented a bright red, clip-on version to Turnbull, an associate dean at the Harvard School of Public Health, who prefers more casual dress.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 02:18 PM
September 20, 2007

Women's treatment center to be named for Kitty Dukakis

kitty%20dukakis85.bmpTomorrow morning a new women’s shelter in Jamaica Plain will be named in honor of former Massachusetts first lady Kitty Dukakis (left) for her work to open a shelter 24 years ago and for her personal advocacy since then.

The Kitty Dukakis Treatment Center for Women is a 32-bed center at the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital for women who have gone through detox but are in the early stages of recovering from addiction. The center opened in January and is expected to treat 300 women a year. Its 28-day program includes counseling on substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and HIV.

"This is way beyond a shelter. This is a shelter dedicated to women who have both drug and alcohol issues, and many of them trauma also," Dukakis said in an interview. "It’s an excellent program and I am thrilled to be honored this way."

In 1983, when Michael Dukakis was returning to office for a second term as governor, he identified homelessness as a major problem. His wife founded The Friends of the Shattuck Shelter, now known as hopeFound, which opened an emergency shelter for men and women.

Mary Nee, executive director of hopeFound, said naming the new shelter after Dukakis was an easy decision to make.

"She has been a leading advocate for addiction and mental health treatment, two conditions found in the vast majority of homeless women we serve," Nee said in a statement.

In 1990 Dukakis came forward with her own story of addiction to alcohol and diet pills, and last year she wrote a book with former Globe medical reporter Larry Tye about her experiences with electroconvulsive therapy for her disabling depression.

"I think as a person in recovery I am well aware that for everybody in the United States — and this it true in Massachusetts, too — the opportunities for treatment for people who need it are way down from what they were 25 years ago," she said. "I will continue to advocate for folks to understand that this problem has not gone away."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 12:18 PM
September 20, 2007

Northeastern wins Gates grant to fight TB

Northeastern University has won a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fight tuberculosis.

Biology professor Kim Lewis will use $750,000 to identify new compounds to stay ahead of drug-resistant TB strains. The foundation announced eight other grants totaling $18 million for new drug discovery, $200 million for vaccine development and $62 million for new diagnostic tests.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 12:10 PM
September 20, 2007

Surgeon barred in Mass. resigns in Illinois case, Tribune reports

A surgeon barred last year from practicing in Massachusetts after he was accused of providing "grossly substandard care," resulting in deaths and life-threatening complications, was operating on veterans at an Illinois hospital until last month, today's Chicago Tribune reports.

Dr. Jose Veizaga-Mendez resigned from the Marion VA Medical Center in Southern Illinois on Aug. 13, three days after one of his patients there bled to death after routine gallbladder surgery, the story says. Shortly after, inpatient surgeries were suspended at the hospital because a computer analysis had uncovered a spike in its number of post-surgical deaths.

In Massachusetts, the Board of Registration in Medicine last year accused Veizaga-Mendez of failing to report malpractice cases in which he was a named defendant, and of providing woefully inferior care to seven patients, according to the Tribune. He surrendered his Massachusetts medical license voluntarily in July 2006.

Yet the doctor continued to perform surgeries at the Marion VA, where he had been practicing since January of that year, the Tribune says. Veizaga-Mendez continues to hold a valid license to practice in the state of Illinois, though the state was alerted more than a year ago that he had surrendered his license in Massachusetts, where he had an office in Mansfield.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 07:42 AM
September 20, 2007

Today's Globe: cancer vaccine, Zachary Carson, Ebola outbreak, SEIU effort, South Shore gift

New data shows a vaccine against the virus that causes cervical cancer partially blocks infection by 10 strains of the virus on top of the four types the vaccine targets.

When Zachary Carson was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor at age 17, he tried to make life better for those who would follow, using his case to help raise about $220,000 for research into diffuse pontine glioma, the rare pediatric cancer with which he had been diagnosed. Mr. Carson died of respiratory failure yesterday in his Newton home. He was 19.

International medical personnel and supplies are being airlifted to a remote region of central Democratic Republic of Congo to combat what threatens to become the world's most serious outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in years.

The Service Employees International Union will step up its Boston hospital organizing efforts today when members are expected to hand out leaflets in the Longwood Medical Area.

Braintree real estate entrepreneur Francis X. Messina has donated $2.25 million to South Shore Hospital in Weymouth (second item).

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:51 AM
September 19, 2007

Beth Israel Deaconess wins safety award for improving obstetrics care

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has won a national safety and quality award for the changes it made in its obstetrics department after the death of a newborn baby in 2000.

The National Quality Forum and The Joint Commission chose the hospital for its John M. Eisenberg Patient Safety and Quality Award in the category of innovation at the national level. The Beth Israel Deaconess program has also been honored by state groups for its efforts.

The baby’s death after a series of medical mistakes spurred Dr. Benjamin Sachs to revamp how the department cared for its patients, from how patients are monitored to how long doctors are on call. Sachs, who will leave the hospital in November to lead Tulane’s medical school, wrote about the case in the Journal of the American Medical Association two years ago, calling it a “burning platform” for “a major reorganization of the way cared is provided.”

The hospital borrowed principles from military and commercial aviation to reduce judgment errors and miscommunication. By its own measure, adverse outcomes fell by 25.4 percent and the severity of these events dropped by 13.4 percent after the new approach was adopted, according to the Joint Commission statement announcing the award.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 02:58 PM
September 19, 2007

Judge rules against breastfeeding medical student

By Felicia Mello, Globe Correspondent

A Harvard medical student and new mother will not be permitted to take extra break time to pump breast milk during her exam to become a doctor, a judge ruled today.

Sophie Currier of Brookline sued the National Board of Medical Examiners Sept. 6, arguing the board violated her constitutional right to breastfeed by denying her more than the 45 minutes of rest periods allotted to all test takers.

Currier, who has a four-month-old daughter, must pass the exam before she can graduate and begin a residency program at Massachusetts General Hospital later this fall.

In a three-page opinion, Norfolk Superior Court Judge Patrick Brady said Currier could still find a way to expel her milk during the test or on regularly scheduled breaks.

"The plaintiff may take the test and pass, notwithstanding what she considers to be unfavorable conditions," Brady wrote. "The plaintiff may delay the test, which is offered numerous times during the year, until she has finished her breast-feeding and the need to express milk."

Currier’s lawyer, Christine Smith Collins, said she will appeal the decision to a state court of appeals judge, who could still issue a ruling before Currier takes the exam next Monday.

"Basically the judge decided it’s okay to tell women to wait until they are done being moms to become professionals, which as far as I’m concerned is not acceptable in this day and age,” Collins said.

The board has offered to allow Currier to bring her breast pump into the exam room, and to provide her with an extra room in which to expel milk during her breaks. Currier will be allowed to take the test over two days, instead of the normal one, because she has dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the board has agreed to give her 45 minutes of break time each day. Currier wants an additional hour of break time each day.

But the board argued that it would be unfair to other test takers to allow Currier more time for a condition not recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"The national board thinks that breastfeeding is a fine thing to do but it also thinks that having a standardized examination for licensure is also really important," said board spokesperson Ken Cotton.

He said the board periodically reviews its testing policies and will consider increasing break time for all examinees, a solution he said would be more consistent than making an exception for Currier.

September 19, 2007

Today's Globe: homeless man's bond, TB treatment, Harvard Pilgrim campaign

patrick%20conway%20100.bmpA homeless man with virtually nothing to his name turned out to have a lot to offer others. As his support team came to know Patrick Conway (left) better, and as he focused more clearly on the time he had left once he learned he would die of liver cancer, an unusual bond formed between caregivers and patient.

In the 1990s, Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, the big doctors group, was part of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, the big health insurer. Harvard Pilgrim would like you to forget all about that slice of history, and it's spending $4 million on the company's largest advertising campaign of the year to drive home the point.

New research gives hope for successfully treating tuberculosis in a few months rather than the six months or more currently needed to beat the contagious lung disease, doctors reported yesterday.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:58 AM
September 18, 2007

5 Mass. hospitals get top honors from Leapfrog Group

By Liz Kowalczyk, Globe Staff

Five Massachusetts hospitals have received top honors from The Leapfrog Group, a national coalition of employers based in Washington, D.C., that promotes patient safety.

Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Lahey Clinic in Burlington, and Massachusetts General Hospital are among 33 Leapfrog top hospitals for 2007.

The Leapfrog Group said these hospitals have the best records for implementing measures to improve the safety and quality of medical care, including adopting computerized physician order entry, a system for doctors to order patient prescriptions and other treatments that includes error prevention software, and staffing intensive care units with trained ICU specialists.

September 18, 2007

Boston dominates NIH grants to innovators

By Elizabeth Cooney, Globe Correspondent

Boston-area scientists made a strong showing in two government grant programs designed to spur innovative medical research in an era of tight federal funding.

Sixteen of 41 winners announced today by the National Institutes of Health are from Greater Boston. Half of this year's 12 recipients of the prestigious Pioneer Award work at Boston-area hospitals or universities, and 10 out of 29 New Innovator awards are going to investigators in Boston or Cambridge. Pioneer grant winners receive $2.5 million and New Innovators get $1.5 million, all over five years.

jeremy%20berg85.bmp"I think it's a real testimony to the area," Jeremy M. Berg (left), director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, said in an interview today. "Boston is certainly known for having a large number of high-quality educational institutions, like Harvard and MIT, but also many others. These are very much individual-based awards, though, so it's really a reflection of the ability of these institutions to recruit outstanding people."

This is Boston's best showing in the Pioneer competition, now in its fourth year, and only California has come close to Massachusetts' success, accounting for six of the 13 Pioneer winners in 2005. In 2004, Harvard researchers took home two of nine grants. In 2005, one winner was from Massachusetts, and last year four out of 13 scientists, including one from UMass-Amherst, were from the state. This is the first year for the New Innovator grants.

Berg runs the two grant programs under an NIH initiative intended to support bold and unconventional research that could have a big payoff but also has a higher than usual risk of failure and is therefore less likely to receive approval through the traditional grant process. While the Pioneer awards go to researchers at any point in their careers, the New Innovator awards are limited to scientists who are within 10 years of finishing their doctoral degrees or clinical training and who have not yet won NIH grants for their independent research.

Younger scientists have been waiting longer to get their first grants, from an average age of the mid-30s about 10 years ago to their 40s in recent years, a symptom of increased competition for government funding for science that has been declining in real dollars. The NIH budget doubled from 1998 to 2003 but has been flat since, making it more difficult to win new grants and maintain previous support.

The New Innovator competition drew 2,200 applications, Berg said, compared with 450 for the Pioneer awards.

"We expected there would be a strong response, but not this strong," he said. "I don't think anybody would argue that by funding 1.3 percent of the 2,200 applications we got that we're making much of a dent in the demand."

The demand demonstrates the need for a program that supports riskier work, Berg said.

"The motivation for the program was to find a good way to get outstanding young scientists funded earlier in their careers and to encourage people to really work on things they were most excited about rather than being conservative" and working on things that have a better chance of getting funded, he said.

Nir Hacohen of Massachusetts General Hospital, who will study how the immune system senses infectious agents and turns on a response specific to viruses, bacteria or fungi, said the Innovator award he won is what's needed for science to make advances.

"Clearly people are starving for this kind of award," the 40-year-old researcher said in an interview. The current system tends to reward investigators who have already proven their ideas, he said.

Konrad Hochedlinger, 31, of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute at MGH, said his Innovator award will help him quickly advance his work in the fast-moving field of stem cell research. He has created a new approach based on work by Japanese scientists to reprogram adult cells into embryonic stem cells.

"It's important that funds be available immediately to get this off the ground rather than waiting for the regular R01 grant," he said in an interview.

lisa%20feldman%20barrett85.bmpLisa Feldman Barrett (left) of Boston College, who won a Pioneer grant, will study the neuroanatomy of emotions such as anger and fear, pursuing a theory that doesn't fit conventional models. She said she understands how the traditional funding process works.

"It's a very risk-averse strategy, and if people have limited funds it's a good idea, but it can slow innovation and progress," she said in an interview.

Here is the complete list of Boston-area winners, with the NIH description of their research.

NIH Director’s Pioneer Award:

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Boston College professor of psychology, who will study how the brain creates emotional experiences like anger and happiness.

enbrown1%5B1%5D%2085.bmpDr. Emery N. Brown (left), Massachusetts General Hospital professor of anesthesia and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of computational neuroscience and health sciences and technology, who will develop a systems neuroscience approach to study how anesthetic drugs act in the brain to create the state of general anesthesia.

jcollins%5B1%5D%2085.bmpJames J. Collins (right), Boston University professor of biomedical engineering, who will develop systems biology and synthetic biology approaches to analyze the bacterial gene regulatory networks underlying cellular responses to antibiotics.

Hensch%5B1%5D%2085.bmpTakao K. Hensch (left), Children’s Hospital Boston professor of neurology, who will explore the role of noncoding RNAs in brain development and as a potential treatment for brain disorders.

Jensen%5B1%5D%2085.bmpDr. Frances E. Jensen (right), Children’s Hospital Boston professor of neurology, who will examine how seizures in early life alter the developing brain and lead to cognitive disorders.

turrigiano%5B1%5D%2085.bmpGina Turrigiano (left), Brandeis University professor of biology, who will develop a very high-resolution microscope for probing the molecular structure of synapses.

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award:

Ed Boyden, Massachusetts Institute of Technology assistant professor of biological engineering, who will invent and study new methods of controlling the neural circuits that malfunction in neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Dr. Sarah Fortune, Harvard School of Public Health assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases, who will investigate the mechanisms by which tuberculosis escapes the immune system response.

Dr. Levi A. Garraway, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute assistant professor of medicine, who will use a novel genetic and chemical screening approach to identify changes in malignant melanoma tumor cells that could be targets for new treatments.

Nir Hacohen, Massachusetts General Hospital assistant professor of medicine, who will use a new genetic approach to dissect immune system pathways that sense disease-causing agents.

Ekaterina Heldwein, Tufts University School of Medicine assistant professor of microbiology and molecular biology, who will use structural and biophysical approaches to discover, in atomic-level detail, how herpes viruses enter their host cells.

Konrad Hochedlinger, Harvard Stem Cell Institute assistant professor of medicine, who will study the reprogramming of adult mouse and human cells into embryonic cells by defined factors.

Alan Jasanoff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology N.C. Rasmussen Assistant Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, who will devise genetically controlled, noninvasive methods for measuring brain activity in animals.

Dr. Mark D. Johnson, Brigham and Women’s Hospital assistant professor of neurosurgery, who will examine the role of decreased synthesis of microRNA in the development and aggressiveness of human cancer.

Alan Saghatelian, Harvard University assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, who will develop advanced analytical chemistry approaches to characterize biomedically important enzymes.

Mehmet Fatih Yanik, Massachusetts Institute of Technology assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who will develop microchip technologies to perform extremely fast studies of gene function in small animals to rapidly identify genetic targets for new drugs.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 04:21 PM
September 18, 2007

New group will urge patients to ask questions about their care

By Liz Kowalczyk, Globe Staff

A new organization funded by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts is planning a multi-year patient safety initiative directed at consumers. The Partnership for Healthcare Excellence, a coalition that includes consumer groups, doctors and nurses, and business organizations, plans to launch an advertising campaign this year that encourages patients to play a bigger role in improving the quality of medical care.

The campaign, which will include print ads, a website and direct mail, will provide information about variations in health care quality among different hospitals, and advice for patients on how to prepare for a safe stay in the hospital by asking questions about hospital procedures.

"We are trying to get consumers to become much more active in their care,'" said James Conway, chairman of the partnership board and senior vice president at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge. "A key message is that they have the right to ask questions.'"

Blue Cross, the state's largest health insurer, donated more than $1 million to start the group.

September 18, 2007

Today's Globe: osteoporosis drug, spine device, candidates on healthcare, dirty hands, retail clinics

A simple treatment for osteoporosis can cut the risk of death following a broken hip by 28 percent, according to a study released last night that confirms a long-recommended but often ignored treatment.

Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems Inc. of Foxborough is seeking a special waiver from the Food and Drug Administration to start marketing it to people with acute spinal injuries - without first having to prove the device is effective.

The long-awaited healthcare proposal Hillary Clinton unveiled yesterday is the most high-profile sign of the consensus emerging among the leading Democratic presidential contenders about how to cover 47 million uninsured Americans. Essentially, their answer is moderation.

The gender gap has widened when it comes to hygiene, according to the latest stakeout by the "hand washing police."

In healthcare, convenience and affordability are not always compatible with public health and patient safety, Dr. Bruce Auerbach, president-elect of the Massachusetts Medical Society, writes in an op-ed piece about retail clinics.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:49 AM
September 17, 2007

Breastfeeding medical student gets day in court

By Felicia Mello, Globe Correspondent

A state judge heard arguments today in the case of a Harvard medical student who is suing for extra break time to pump breast milk during her exam to become a doctor, but postponed a ruling until later this week.

The hearing set the stage for a last-minute decision in the suit filed by Sophie Currier of Brookline, who plans to take the clinical knowledge exam -- the last hurdle she must clear before she can begin her residency program at Massachusetts General Hospital -- next Monday and Tuesday.

Currier's lawyer today asked Judge Patrick Brady of Norfolk Superior Court to issue an injunction forcing the National Board of Medical Examiners to grant Currier, who has a four-month-old daughter, two hours of extra rest periods over the course of the exam. The lawyer accused the board of violating Currier's rights under the state constitution and discriminating against her based on her gender.

"What you're doing is screening out women because they are unable to take care of their dual roles as mothers and professionals," Currier's lawyer, Christine Smith Collins, told the court. "It's unfair, it's unjust, and it's not in the public's interest."

But a lawyer for the board said that making Currier follow the same rules as other test-takers didn't prevent her from breastfeeding, but just made it less convenient.

"One thing we cannot do is change the format for the test, because then we've failed all 50 medical boards that are relying on this and we've failed every other student who takes this test," said board lawyer Joseph Savage.

The board has offered to allow Currier to bring her breast pump into the exam room, and to provide her with an extra room in which to expel milk during her breaks -- though it's unclear whether that room would be monitored. Currier will be allowed to take the test over two days, instead of the normal one, because she has dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the board has agreed to give her 45 minutes of break time each day -- the daily amount granted all test-takers.

The case had been moved to federal court last week but was sent back to state court after a federal judge said he could not hear the case until mid-October.

Holding her baby outside the Dedham courthouse after the hearing, Currier, who has started a blog to reach out to mothers in similar situations, said she hoped her case would help them, too.

"It's really about whether women should be protected under the law to breastfeed their children," she said.

September 17, 2007

Children's group building online medical records for major employer group

A group from Children's Hospital Boston has been hired by a corporate consortium to develop online medical records for their employees.

Dossia, a group of eight major employers including Wal-Mart and Intel, chose the Children's Hospital Informatics Program to adapt its own program called Indivo to provide secure health records for 5 million employees and their dependents and retirees.

The Children's program, which also has ties to Harvard and MIT, has been working for 10 years to create Web-based records for patients that include a lifetime of health information across different doctors and care sites. The Dossia goal is to allow its workers to have access to their medical records, to communicate with their doctors, and to pull together information from different sources, the group said.

Dossia does not disclose details of its contracts, Colette Cote, a spokeswoman for member Pitney-Bowes and Dossia, said when asked about the financial terms of the agreement with Children's. The other companies in Dossia are AT&T, Sanofi-aventis, Applied Materials, BP America Inc. and Cardinal Health.

Indivo will be introduced at Children's this fall and Dossia plans to roll out its version to some members by the end of the year, its statement said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:06 PM
September 17, 2007

2 diagnosed with West Nile virus

By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff

A 53-year-old Arlington man and a 48-year-old Worcester woman have been diagnosed with West Nile virus, the first known cases of the mosquito-borne illness contracted in Massachusetts this year, health authorities said today.

Both the man and the woman became sick in August, and both are now at home recovering, said Donna Rheaume, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health.

Three other people were diagnosed earlier in the summer with West Nile while in Massachusetts, but in two cases, the patients were visitors who had been infected in their home state. The third case involved a Boston man exposed to the virus while outside of Massachusetts.

So far this year, nearly 1,400 cases of West Nile have been documented in the United States, with most reported from states west of the Mississippi River.

In the most severe cases, West Nile virus can cause a high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, and paralysis. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one of every 150 people infected with West Nile develops severe symptoms.

To avoid contact with infected mosquitoes, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health recommends limiting outdoor activities from dusk to dawn, peak biting times for mosquitoes. Otherwise, wear as much clothing as comfortable and apply insect repellent such as DEET, permethrin, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus.

DEET should not be used on infants under the age of 2 months and should be used in concentrations of 30 percent or less on older children. Oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under 3 years old.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 02:51 PM
September 17, 2007

On the blogs: Storrow Drive, endangered white coats

On Running a Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess CEO Paul Levy strays from hospital administration to consider Storrow Drive, once envisioned as a parkway but now a heavily traveled route in need of repair. He digs back to his days in what he calls the "infrastructure arena," when he was commissioner of public utilities under Governor Michael Dukakis, directed the Arkansas Energy Department under Governor Bill Clinton and then ran the cleanup of Boston Harbor for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. After a chat with fellow MIT alum and former transportation secretary Fred Salvucci, he offers what he thinks might work, for both the Longwood and MIT sides of the Charles.

"Opportunities like this come along but rarely, and I think we should ask the question: Do we need Storrow Drive?"

Across the pond, the BBC reports that the days of the traditional white coat may be numbered. Cuffs can carry infection and make it difficult for doctors to properly wash their hands and forearms, so as of next year, the long-sleeved coats will have no place in hospital care, the story says. That goes for long-sleeved shirts, jewelry and watches, too.

"I'm determined that patient safety, including cleanliness, should be the first priority" of every National Health Service organization, British Health Secretary Alan Johnson said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 12:36 PM
September 17, 2007

Tufts Medical School gets its largest gift

Tufts University School of Medicine will use its largest gift to create a campus center, build a simulation lab where students can practice on a mannequin, and fund scholarships, the university said.

The Jaharis Family Foundation has given the medical school $15 million. Some of the money will go toward half-scholarships for medical students; the amount depends on whether Tufts is able to meet a goal of raising $7.5 million from other donors for the campus center.

Dr. Steven Jaharis is a 1987 graduate of the medical school and his father, Michael Jaharis, is the founder of Kos Pharmaceutical Co.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 11:49 AM
September 17, 2007

WSJ: Clue to estrogen and heart health found

Texas scientists may have found an explanation for why estrogen failed to protect some older women from heart disease in the Women's Health Initiative, a finding a Boston researcher called "intriguing" in today's Wall Street Journal.

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas say a molecule created when the body processes cholesterol may block estrogen from helping blood vessels stay healthy, the story says. In women long past menopause, such as those who were in the Women's Health Initiative, these molecules may have taken over estrogen receptors and blocked the effects of the hormone they started taking, the theory goes.

Dr. JoAnn Manson of Brigham and Women's Hospital and a principal investigator for the WHI, told the Journal that the Texas work may explain why women with high cholesterol did worse on hormone therapy than those with low cholesterol.

"Their overall finding ties together very nicely with the clinical-trial results," Manson said in the story. "This could help fit pieces of the puzzle together."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 11:27 AM
September 17, 2007

MGH names patient-care institute head

Gaurdia%20Banister85.bmpGaurdia E. Banister (left) has been named the first executive director of The Institute for Patient Care at Massachusetts General Hospital, which includes centers for nursing research and professional development.

A registered nurse with a doctorate in psychiatric/mental health nursing, she had been senior vice president for patient care services at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., part of the Ascension Health System.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 11:16 AM
September 17, 2007

Today's Health|Science: human growth hormone, suicide rise and the FDA, aging study's director

rodney%20harrison150.bmpPatriots safety Rodney Harrison (left) said he injected human growth hormone to help heal his football injuries. Other professional athletes allegedly took it as part of a clandestine cocktail that they hoped would boost their recovery or power. And thousands of older people have flocked to clinics that promote the drug as a fountain of youth. But there is little or no evidence that the drug provides any of those benefits to healthy individuals, researchers and hormone specialists say, while overuse carries serious risks, including diabetes and heart abnormalities.

It's too soon to blame a record increase in youth suicides in 2004 on federal warnings that antidepressants such as Prozac can trigger suicidal thoughts in children, statistical experts say.

george%20vaillant150.bmpFor nearly four decades, Dr. George Vaillant (left), a Brigham and Women's psychiatrist, has tended files from the Study of Adult Development, perhaps the longest-running investigation of aging ever conducted.

Also, what exactly is chewing gum made of and where does it come from, and what is plantar fasciitis and how is it treated?

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:46 AM
September 17, 2007

Today's Globe: paying for errors, Native American vets at risk, Martin D. Abeloff, health reform

About half of Massachusetts hospitals say they have adopted policies to waive charges for serious medical errors such as wrong-site surgery and harmful medication mistakes, and others say they plan to, amid growing resistance from government and health insurers to paying for poor outcomes.

Mental health workers are looking for new ways to help Native American service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But in New England, the effort to reach out to Native American veterans is lagging, mental health specialists and some Native Americans say.

martin%20d.%20abeloff85.bmpMartin D. Abeloff, 65, an international authority on the treatment of breast cancer and chief oncologist and director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University for the past 15 years, died of leukemia Friday at the center in Baltimore.

Health reform
built on private insurance isn't working and can't work; it costs too much and delivers too little, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler and Dr. David Himmelstein, primary care doctors at Cambridge Hospital, write on the op-ed page.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:39 AM
September 17, 2007

In case you missed Sunday's Globe

For more than four years, a small team huddled in the Dunkin' Donuts research lab trying to crack the code for a doughnut without trans fats that tasted just like those on which the chain had built its reputation over the last half century.

A feud between two major Boston-based hospitals over a lucrative cancer treatment facility in the western suburbs is heating up.

elizabeth%20hay100.bmpDr. Elizabeth Hay, (left), the first woman to lead a preclinical department at Harvard Medical School and a researcher who helped define the role of material that surrounds cells and supports the microscopic mass in tissue, died of lung cancer on Aug. 20. She was 80 and had lived in Weston for many years.

More young women are learning early that they are genetically prone to breast cancer, setting off a new type of family drama.

Two researchers who opened up the field of heart-valve replacement and a scientist who discovered a type of cell that plays a key role in the immune system have won Albert Lasker Medical Research Awards.

Earlier this year, the death of a Maryland boy from untreated dental decay shed a grim spotlight on gaps in federal and state medical assistance programs charged with providing care to 30 million poor children.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:35 AM
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